SC rules ‘red-tagging, vilification’ that threaten a person’s life, liberty, security may justify issuance of court’s protective order

The Supreme Court (SC) declared that red-tagging, vilification, labelling, and guilt by association threaten a person’s right to life, liberty or security and may justify the issuance of the court’s protective order.

With its declaration, the SC issued a Writ of Amparo pleaded in the petition filed by former Party-List congressman Siegfred D. Deduro of Iloilo.

A Writ of Amparo “is a remedy available to any person whose right to life, liberty and security is violated or threatened with violation by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or of a private individual or entity.”

In a full court decision written by Associate Justice Rodil V. Zalameda, the SC remanded Deduro’s petition to the Iloilo City regional trial court (RTC) with an order for an expeditious resolution of the other issues raised in the petition.

The RTC had earlier dismissed outright Deduro’s petition for a Writ of Amparo in a decision handed down on Oct. 26, 2020.

Deduro filed before the RTC a petition for a Writ of Amparo on June 19, 2020.  He told the trial court, among other things, that after he was tagged as leader of terrorist-communist groups, he had been subjected to surveillance.

He said his photos were seen on posters which tagged him and other persons as criminals, terrorists, and members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front (NDF).

The RTC dismissed Deduro’s petition with a ruling that his allegations of red-tagging baseless, unsupported by evidence, and insufficient for the grant of the extraordinary writ.  He elevated his case before the SC.

He told the SC that the RTC should have ordered respondent (Maj. Gen. Eric. C. Vinoya  as commanding officer of the Third Infantry Division of the Philippine Army) to comment on his petition instead of outrightly dismissing it.

Also, he said the trial court should have conducted a summary hearing in line with the rules prescribed by the SC.

In granting partially Deduro’s petition, the SC said:

“While we do not rule outright that petitioner (Deduro) is entitled to all of the reliefs sought, we deem it proper to reverse the RTC's Order of dismissal dated 26 October 2020 and issue a Writ of Amparo against respondent (General Vinoya).

“Red-tagging has been acknowledged by international organizations as a form of harassment and intimidation. As early as 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Council observed the prevalence of a practice in the Philippines where groups at the left of the political spectrum are characterized as front organizations of anti-democratic groups. The report called the practice ‘vilification,’ ‘labelling,’ or guilt by association.

“More than a decade after, red-tagging also transitioned to online social media platforms like Facebook. As noted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in its Annual Report dated 29 June 2020, labelling certain groups or persons as ‘reds’ oftentimes came with frequent surveillance and direct harassment.

“Some received death threats either through text or online direct messages. A number of women activists have reported being threatened with rape or other forms of sexual assault. While some of these red-labelling remained as threats, the report also noted that some of those red-tagged individuals were eventually killed.

“Just last year, various United Nations special rapporteurs made a public plea to stop the practice of red-tagging in the country, stating: ‘Human rights defenders in the Philippines continue to be red-tagged, labelled as 'terrorists' and ultimately killed in attempts to silence them and delegitimize their human rights work. This must end.’

“The foregoing accounts of red-tagging depict it as a likely precursor to abduction or extrajudicial killing. Being associated with communists or terrorists makes the red-tagged person a target of vigilantes, paramilitary groups, or even State agents. Thus, it is easy to comprehend how a person may, in certain circumstances, develop or harbor fear that being red-tagged places his or her life or security in peril.

“Given the extraordinary circumstances that normally give rise to an Amparo petition, we acknowledge that a petitioner may not be able to describe with specificity the circumstances and the persons responsible for alleged threats to his or her right to life, liberty, and security, since these violations or threats are normally purposely hidden or concealed by the perpetrators.

“Any petition for a writ of amparo must be examined from the perspective of the petitioner. Specifically, the courts will look into whether petitioner alleged adequate details that are available to him or her under the circumstances, while presenting a cause of action showing the State's actual or threatened violation of the supposed victim's rights to life, liberty, or security.

“In other words, upon the filing of the petition, the court evaluates whether its allegations, prima facie or on its face, proffer a violation of the rights protected by a Writ of Amparo.

“Ultimately, the Writ of Amparo was meant to be both a preventive and curative remedy. It is preventive in that it breaks the expectation of impunity in the commission of these offenses; it is curative in that it facilitates the subsequent punishment of perpetrators since it will inevitably yield leads for subsequent investigations and actions.

“In the long run, the goal of both the preventive and curative roles is to deter the further commission of extralegal killings and enforced disappearances.

“Judges should be mindful, and especially cognizant, of the different power dynamics in their assessment of an actual or future threat to a petitioner's life, security, or liberty, as well as in their evaluation of the existence of substantial evidence to support a grant of the privilege of a Writ of Amparo. A stubborn refusal to acknowledge this reality leads to denial of protection to those who are vulnerable.

“We deem it proper to reverse the order of dismissal and require the RTC to conduct a summary hearing. This ensures that petitioner's cause of action and respondent's defense are fully ventilated because this Court is not a trier of facts.

“It must be underscored that we are not making a categorical ruling on the merits of the prayer for the grant of the privilege of the Writ of Amparo. Ultimately, the RTC must still determine the relevance and consistency of the evidence presented by both parties, while bearing in mind the surrounding circumstances and the protection that the writ is meant to provide.”